The brunch was on the ground floor of Mark Kostabi’s town house on the East Side and the artist was on the piano as I arrived, alongside a group of musicians including his brother Paul on guitar.
I moved on though, helped myself to a plate of salad and sat outside with a group, unknown to me.
A leaf of kale stuck in my throat.
The noises I began making were Neanderthal, but what I was thinking was that I was maybe about to die.
This was not a first such moment.
I was stabbed fourteen times alongside a girlfriend by a deranged man in my apartment. He had cut our telephone lines, so clearly did not wish us well. I clubbed him with a shillelagh.
Another time I was thrown into the boot of a car outside the Chalet Suisse, a hotel in West Beirut, during the troubles there. The kidnappers seemed not to wish me well either.
And these are not Ben Carson-type memories. These events are on Google. Under such pressures my mind becomes oddly cool, almost as though I was somewhere else, but this was different.
A leaf of kale at a Kostabi musicale!
This was laughably ridiculous!
A line I had toyed with while contemplating the misadventures of others came to mind: You can’t live down a death like that.
My neighbors were now on their feet. Did I want a glass of water?
“Heimlich!” I grunted.
A man on one side was flapping his arms but a woman got the job done with crisp efficiency. I ejected the kale.
I thanked her, saying “I can see your halo,” walked down and joined some friends in the garden. End of story.
The episode made Richard Johnson’s page in the New York Post, where my savior was described as “blogger Gail Worley,” and Kostabi was quoted saying “Next time I’m having a party, guests over 65 can only eat apple sauce and other easy-to-swallow baby food.”
My anger flared but as quickly subsided because it was a funny line.
Anyway, I have written a fair amount about people and I do not always remember just what--but they have far better memories.
An actor, whose face I described as looking like “uncooked veal escalope” quoted this back to me, word for word, many years later. Unsmilingly. I have had other such in-your-face moments over stuff that was just meant to be color. So forget it.
This wasn’t easy though. Folk all over town were and are still bringing up the Killer Kale.
This wasn’t (always) mean-spirited. Not a few produced choking stories of their own.
At Walter Robinson’s book-signing at Max Fish, one guy described choking with no Heimlich-schooled operative in sight, and how he had collapsed, chest-first, onto a table with equivalent, life-saving effect.
Anyway I had by then come up with a face-saving line: At least it would have been a healthy death.
But there was no way to make choking interesting. So I began asking others about their close shaves.
Mike Cockrill, the artist, told me, “In the 80s before the Gowanus in Brookyn was hipster and Park Slope was restaurant row, I came out of a bodega at 5th avenue and 3rd Street to be confronted by a drug dealer who said, "Give me all the money you have or I'm going to shoot you.' With a bag of groceries in my hand, which I did not bother putting down, I said, 'Well, I guess you're going to shoot me because I don't have any money. I just spent it.' (Not true)
“I turned and headed towards my studio. The street thug called out. 'Are you going to make me shoot you in the back?' I shrugged and kept walking. 'I don't shoot people in the back,' he added self-righteously. The 80s were tough. It was maybe the fourth time somebody had threatened to shoot me.”
Richard Stratton, the writer, was formerly a heavy duty hash smuggler.
The close shave he chose to share was also Beirut-based. “Jack Nicholson saved my life,” he began, intriguingly. “In 1982, at the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, my girlfriend convinced me to leave our West Beirut apartment and brave crossing the Green Line to go see The Shining. While we were out, a rocket blew off the side of our building. We would have been killed.”
You can read more in Stratton’s new book, Smuggler’s Blues: A True Story of The Hippie Mafia.
Michael Holman, the artist, who played with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band, Grey, said: “I was hanging out with underground singer/songwriter, Anna Domino, approximately 1986-7. She's living with her brother, filmmaker Alan Taylor, in a 12th floor loft, on Broadway, in Soho. We get a bit tipsy on beer. Then she takes me to the roof and we cross over to the next building's roof, walking across a shaky, 18" plank, straddling the two 12-floor buildings, nothing but air below us. It didn't occur to me that there was nothing but air and hard concrete, 12 floors below us. Obviously she did this routinely. When I realized the only way back was to cross the same shaky, precarious plank again, I refused, but she coaxed me across.” Holman added with feeling. “I'll never forget, or forgive her for that. When I think of this memory, I still get the heebee-jeebies.”
Such venues are way… let’s say more interesting than an Upper East Side brunch.
So let’s zoom in on Walter Robinson’s book-signing at which I ran into none other than Mark Kostabi. We chat, I being in a congenial mood.
Saying he wanted to take my photograph, Kostabi stationed me carefully against that immemorial artifact, the Max Fish pool table. You can see the picture here, damn it. Will I ever escape that Killer Kale?